A metaphor is a powerful image – a powerful figure of speech. It is more than just saying one thing is another thing. Sallie McFague, in her book Models of God, has this to say about a metaphor, “What a metaphor expresses cannot be said directly apart from it. It is an attempt to say something about the UNFAMILIAR in terms of the FAMILIAR, an attempt to speak about what we do NOT know in terms of what we DO know.” Metaphors, then, become symbols – very powerful symbols that mold us into something different. They change us and our ways of thinking and understanding.
Footwashing is one of these powerful metaphors. Jesus takes something familiar – at least in his time – to attempt to speak about the unfamiliar – to give it new meaning – a new reality. Footwashing in Jesus’ time was a common practice. It was the custom, if no servant was present, to wash one another’s feet before eating. The disciples probably had done this many times before. It was one of the common, ordinary things they did to show respect and consideration to one another.
But on this night, the disciples didn’t do it….Why not???
Some scholars have suggested arguments, bitterness over who would be first in Jesus’ kingdom. Petty jealousy, lack of trust, maybe they were just too tired. Who knows? The Gospel of John doesn’t tell us – it just says that during supper Jesus got up and washed the disciples feet. And then he asked them, “Do you know what I have done to you? I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”
Now Jesus, of course, did not mean for us to literally wash each others feet, rather, it is a simple and beautiful metaphorical act which completes the “holy mystery” of the Last Supper. Again, Jesus uses the familiar to invite us into the unfamiliar.
Feet are a very intimate part of the body. In many ways, they are a very hidden and sensitive part of our body and not always the prettiest part of our bodies either. Crooked toes, thick calluses, cracked skin, not to mention all the nasty toenail possibilities – and we can be rather confident in assuming that the disciples this night hadn’t just had a fresh mani pedi that afternoon. They had been walking for three years, on all kinds of roads in all kinds of weather. Their feet were no doubt rough and ugly and showed heavy wear for their long, arduous journey. They reflected, like ours, how hard the road has been.
In some ways, our feet perhaps metaphorically represent the place of our greatest need in our lives. Feet are messy – you can never be quite sure what you are getting into; what kinds of odors, sores and other defects might come to light. Feet represent the hidden brokenness we keep hidden from everyone…even ourselves sometimes.
So, Peter’s reaction is close to what ours would be, no? I mean, think about it. Who would you really want washing your feet today? Maybe your spouse or a very, very close friend. If you are a little kid, probably your mother (When my three daughters were young it felt like I had a million little toes to clip and paint each week), but would you want your teacher or boss touching your feet? What about an estranged family member? Awkward, right? So, Peter speaks for us when he says to Jesus “no way!”
And yet Jesus knows he must meet each of us where we feel most vulnerable, and touch and bless with water all our hidden defects and rough worn places both on our feet and within us.
“Feet represent our journey. There is nowhere we have been that our feet haven’t touched. When we walk through a dirty parking lot, down a hospital corridor, the quiet plush carpet of a funeral home or along a beautiful lakefront, our feet touch all these places. Our feet – more than any other part of our body – carry the story of our daily living – our most mundane and our most exotic experiences.”
Jesus’ gesture of washing the disciples feet is an ageless metaphor that says to each of them, and each of us, in a very intimate way “I am with you everyday, every moment….I accept and bless everything about you….everywhere you have been, all the bumps and bruises you have, all your mess….I want it all….I accept and love you unconditionally, without exception, without breaking point.” This is the new reality Jesus is trying to communicate to us with this metaphor, he is trying to show us who God is for us and help us to understand how much we are loved.
In closing, I would like to offer a short meditation written by Patrick Curran. I invite you to close your eyes if you like and put yourself right into this story from holy bible…
Imagine yourself at a low table, sitting with Jesus and all your closest friends. Jesus gets up from his seat, removes his shirt, gets a towel and a bowl, and kneels down at your feet. Against your protests and embarrassment, he takes your feet in his hands, unties your shoes, removes your socks and gently cradles your feet. Jesus suddenly becomes intimate with your story.
Your life journey is there, in his lap. In that moment your greatest needs and fears are exposed; your cracked and broken feet are comforted by the soothing water and warm hands. Your guard falls, and you realize that Christ is truly present in your place of deepest, greatest need. Holding you close, keeping you safe, comforting your tired feet, and preparing you to step out anew.
Then he turns to you, and in a soft voice with confident eyes he says, “What I have done for you, you must do for my people. Meet them in their place of greatest need – do not be afraid of what you will find. Be intimate with them; bring them comfort along their journey. Help them to know that I am there.” (Patrick Curran)